Scientists predict future of past tense

Oct. 11, 2007 at 12:26 PM

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., Oct. 11 (UPI) -- U.S. mathematicians have discovered verbs evolve and homogenize at a rate inversely proportional to their prevalence in the English language.

The formula was developed by Harvard University mathematicians who've studied 1,200 years of the English language's evolution -- from "Beowulf" to "Canterbury Tales" to "Harry Potter."

Professor Martin Nowak, Erez Lieberman, Jean-Baptiste Michel, and colleagues in Harvard's Program for Evolutionary Dynamics view linguistic development as essentially an evolutionary scheme: Just as genes and organisms undergo natural selection, words -- specifically, irregular verbs that do not take an "-ed" ending in the past tense -- are subject to powerful pressure to "regularize" as the language develops.

"Mathematical analysis of this linguistic evolution reveals that irregular verb conjugations behave in an extremely regular way -- one that can yield predictions and insights into the future stages of a verb's evolutionary trajectory," said Lieberman, a graduate student in applied mathematics. "We measured something no one really thought could be measured, and got a striking and beautiful result."

The study is detailed in the current issue of the journal Nature.

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